Discover how the American Museum of Natural History protects traveling exhibits.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of what is called Einstein’s Miraculous Year, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has allowed the Einstein Manuscripts, which include hand-written ledgers and formulas, to go out on loan to museums around the world. Thanks to the museum’s willingness to share, the public will have a chance to look at some of the original calculations that led Einstein to his famous insights.
It doesn’t take someone of Einstein’s brilliance, however, to know that traveling exhibits need special protection. To ensure that the Einstein papers would survive their tour, the museum had to do some calculations of its own, regarding risks and preventive measures that should be taken. One result was a custom-made high-security case for the collection, which had alarms for environmental conditions and theft built in. The case materials were designed to maximize visibility for museumgoers, while protecting the pages from harsh light, humidity, and accidental spills of liquids, such as coffee.
That’s just one example of the considerations required for traveling exhibits. In each case, a risk assessment serves to frame the appropriate security profile for the location, after which a site visit allows staff to get the full picture and determine whether adjustments to the host museum’s security are needed.
Host-museum assessment. Before an exhibit leaves its home museum, a thorough threat assessment should be conducted that takes into account the likelihood of theft and damage. At the American Museum of Natural History (the author’s former institution), exhibits are given a ranking of low, medium, or high risk. For example, the valuable and sought-after precious gem and jewelry collections are rated high risk. When an exhibit like the jewelry show is loaned to another institution, the museum thoroughly evaluates the host location to ensure that its security is at or above the level found where the exhibit is permanently housed in New York.
Facilities report. The first step in the process is to request a facilities report from the hosting institution. The facilities report is a standard report designed by the American Association of Museums. It details everything about the museum, including size, age, fire protection equipment, and security equipment.
This report is a narrative that requires detailed explanations by the reporting museum. For example, the report does not simply ask whether CCTV cameras are present, it asks the type, brand, quantity, positioning, and method and frequency of monitoring.
Once the completed report has been received by the American Museum of Natural History, a panel of subject-matter experts, including engineers, security experts, and technicians, reviews the document. In the process, the panel will consult with others as needed. Security department personnel, for example, will often call the CCTV manufacturer to get a better understanding of the CCTV environment at the prospective hosting facility.
They will evaluate the age of the system and how it functions within the security environment. The integration, or lack of integration, between the security cameras and alarms will also be taken into account. The result is an initial assessment of the prospective hosting museum’s security plan.
Site visit. After the subject matter experts have reviewed the facility report, a team of representatives from the security department will visit the prospective host museum to verify the information in the facility report and to offer suggestions for security improvements. This step is a vital part of the process because, while the museum may have adequate protection for its own permanent exhibits, it may not meet the higher-level of security requirements for the traveling show. In addition, because the level of detail in response to the questions on the facilities report may vary from location to location, an on-site observation is necessary to ensure that the site matches the description in the report.
The level of security that the team will demand will depend on the risk rating of the exhibit being loaned. A low-security-level exhibit, such as photographs that are reprints of the originals, may be sufficiently protected by roving patrols and CCTV cameras. High-level exhibits, however, require much more intensive and complicated security that often includes round-the-clock guards, sophisticated alarm systems, specialized exhibit enclosures, and CCTV surveillance.
Testing. Most traveling exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History include wireless sensors, which are installed and monitored at the host site. The site visit is a perfect time for the evaluation team to test the system’s reliability in the host museum’s specific environment.
A transmitter and receiver are set up in the gallery that will house the exhibit, and a special tool is used to measure the level of frequency broadcasting between the wireless transmitter and the receiver. If the frequency level is low or disrupted, typically due to very thick walls, the security department will supply the host museum with special repeaters that will boost the wireless signal and make it functional. (More on this later.)
Making adjustments. Typically, if a prospective host museum does not meet the initial security requirements for a high-risk exhibit, the American Museum of Natural History will work with the institution to enhance its security in preparation for hosting this type of exhibit. At one small but highly respected museum in Michigan, for example, updates to the security system were made to accommodate a very- high-risk jewelry exhibit.
American Museum of Natural History staff worked closely with the host museum’s security staff to ensure that the proper changes were made. Windows and skylights were closed off to reduce intrusion risks. There was also an enhancement of the overall electronic security of the museum, including updates to CCTV and alarm systems.
The American Museum of Natural History was initially concerned that the host museum’s relatively remote location made prompt police response difficult. After the changes were made to the host museum’s security, however, the American Museum of Natural History was satisfied that if a breach occurred, the security measures at the host museum were sophisticated enough that they could delay thieves long enough for police to respond in time even given the anticipated delay.
Travel preparations. Preparing the exhibit for travel requires another type of review. Before an exhibit leaves the American Museum of Natural History, a representative from the museum’s curatorial staff, typically the museum registrar, records the condition of each object, making note of distinguishing characteristics or any damage.
In many cases, a representative from the museum travels with the exhibit to ensure that proper preservation standards, such as humidity and temperature levels, are upheld throughout the travel. The level of in-transit security an object receives depends on its value and theft appeal. For example, many objects from the diamond exhibit were hand-carried onto an airplane by a security guard. Less portable portions of the exhibit were transported by bonded and insured carriers that used both air and ground transportation.
When the exhibit was transported by air, armored transport vehicles would meet the plane on the tarmac and load the cargo. In addition, security guards were always present. The objects then traveled from the airport to the destination via convoy.
However the collection is transported, when the object arrives at its destination, a museum representative compares the original condition report with the object. This procedure ensures that if any damage occurred during transit, it will be recorded. It also detects if the original object has been switched for a faux version.
Shipping enclosures. Every aspect of the traveling exhibit must be well protected, typically inside a specially constructed wooden traveling crate. Display cases are designed for display only and may not protect the object if, for example, the case is turned upside down. For that reason, the artifacts and the display cases are shipped separately, ensuring that both will arrive with minimal damage.
Small, high-value items, such as the diamonds, are often transported by security personnel via attaché cases that are designed to absorb shock and to maintain optimal humidity and climate conditions. Larger items that cannot be hand carried are shipped in environmentally controlled, padded wooden crates.
Protection of the art itself is not the only consideration. Without the display cases functioning properly the artifact cannot go on display. And manufacturing a new case or repairing a damaged one while on the road is often impossible.
The display cases are extremely fragile and complicated and are constructed of a variety of materials, including shatterproof Plexiglas. More important than the actual construction material used in the walls is the type of glue or fasteners used to join the side of the cases together. Some glues used in the construction of vitrines (glass-paneled cases for displaying fine artifacts) can harm delicate artifacts, such as manuscripts, so special compounds that do not emit harmful fumes are necessary. These highly specialized components may not be available while on the road.
Thus, the safe arrival of the display cases is paramount. The traveling enclosures for these display cases are similar to those used for the art itself. They are constructed of wood and are padded.
Alarms. Alarms are sometimes built into the high-security vitrines as was done in the Einstein exhibit. The same approach was taken with the museum’s Native American jewelry exhibit. In that instance, a case was designed that included alarm sensors, which were installed during the fabrication of the enclosure. The exposed portions of the alarms were painted by the museum’s in-house experts and blended perfectly with the inside of the case, making them virtually undetectable to the untrained eye.
The American Museum of Natural History uses a variety of intrusion alarms and environmental sensors in both its in-house and traveling exhibits, which can be either hardwired or wireless. The museum uses a layered approach to its sensors and alarms, typically incorporating more than one type for each exhibit.
For example, on a high-security gem case, contact sensors were installed on all the openings. They sound an alarm if the case is opened. A separate volumetric sensor, which detects any capacity changes, such as if the protected object has been moved, was also used. If someone subverted the contact alarm by cutting an opening in the glass, the volumetric sensor would detect that the object was moved and would sound an alarm.
In addition, a vibration sensor was used with the other sensors to detect if someone attempted to use brute force against the object. The vibration sensor could also be programmed to alarm both at the case and in the security control room to simultaneously scare off any potential thieves or vandals and to alert security.
Wireless. Wireless alarms are used in some permanent exhibits within the museum and, as noted earlier, are sent with most high-security traveling exhibits. When an alarm is triggered, a signal is sent to a transmitter, which sends the information over wireless airwaves to a receiver located within the museum. The receiver then relays the message over a secured LAN or WAN connection to the museum’s security system, signaling an alarm to the monitoring guard.
Because each artifact enclosure can have a variety of alarms and sensors that measure for signs of intrusion or humidity and other environmental issues, each alarm and transmitter combination has a unique identification number. When the alarm is received in the security control room, these identification numbers allow security to know exactly what type of alarm has been triggered, which helps staff to respond appropriately.
Typically a technician from the lending museum travels with the exhibit and sets up the alarm system at the host location. The system is designed to integrate with most alarm system software, which simply requires directing the host museum’s system to recognize the hardware.
Once the system has been installed, the American Museum of Natural History will brief the host-museum staff on the types of alarms and the expected response level for each. This training will cover possible causes for a vibration alarm, for example, and it will include a discussion of what the security team can expect to see on the monitoring screens should one of these alarms be triggered.
Traveling exhibits can generate publicity for both the hosting and lending museums. They also benefit the bottom line. But the security risks must be artfully addressed beforehand to protect the artifacts and both museums’ reputations.
Andrew Turk, CPP, is CEO & President of Turk Technologies, LLC, in New York City and is vice chairman of the ASIS International Museum, Library and Cultural Properties Council.